The Uncomfortable Task of Defending Mike Ward’s Free Speech Rights

Mike Ward is acting like a creep.

Let’s get that out of the way right now.  Ward’s behaviour in continuing to mock a bullied young man with a disability is indefensible.  I don’t care if it’s a comedy routine.  I don’t care if it’s in the interests of free speech.  Grown ups should pick on grown ups and not kids.  Stop it, Mike Ward.

The media is equally to blame for any additional bullying this young man receives, since they continue to splash his name and image all over the internet, providing no context that Ward’s behaviour is very wrong… even if it’s not a violation of anyone’s human rights.  In their opinion.  The Quebec human rights tribunal disagrees.

And this is where we get to the point where I have to make the case that the ruling against Ward’s disgusting behaviour is, in the context it was made, a very bad precedent.

The argument is that the young man, Jérémy Gabriel, had his dignity violated when Ward mocked the young man’s appearance — facial deformities caused by a condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome, a medical condition that affects the bones and tissues of the face.  I’m almost inclined to agree with the judge here that Ward wasn’t just making fun of a person.  Ward was cruelly mocking the young man, who was only 14 or 15 years old at the time, for having a disability.

Like I said, Ward’s behaviour disgusts me.  But note that I also said “almost inclined to agree”.

I’m no stranger to bullying myself.  I’ve been picked on my entire life for my appearance, including being told by so-called evangelical Christians at my school that spotted skin — a reference to my freckles — was a mark of Satan.

But I can relate to poor Jérémy’s story in another way.  When I was seventeen, I got dumped by a guy.  Within days of that breakup, which I was told was at the suggestion of his therapist, I received a call.  It was a stand up comedian at a popular local comedy club, calling from my ex-boyfriend’s cell phone.  With my ex-boyfriend in the audience.

The comedian proceeded to mock me in a goofy voice, referring to personal details of the defunct relationship, while I could hear the audience laughing loudly in the background.

I started crying.  I asked the comedian why he was doing this.  Apparently the audience could hear me, because it went silent.  At some point, I swore at him, and slammed the phone down.  I remember this detail because I got in trouble from my mother for dropping an f-bomb in front of her friends.  What can I say?  I’m the product of fairly strict parenting.

There was follow up with the club, which tried to defend the comedian.  The comedian himself never contacted me or did anything directly to try to make it right.  I was told by the club the comedian “felt bad”, but not that he knew what he’d done was wrong.  Of course not.  That gets you sued.

My mother and I were offered free passes to the comedy club.  I refused them, feeling like they were trying to buy me off with surprisingly little.  In a shocking twist of irony, I had to perform at that very same club years later as part of my job, because it was, at the time, the biggest comedy club in the city.  I did it, but I’ve never forgotten the cruelty, and the apathy after the fact.  I don’t even remember the comedian’s name, but I do remember the name of the executive at the club that tried to sweep it under the rug.

Again, I won’t say his name, because that gets you sued.

All I wanted was for everyone involved to realize that what they did was wrong; specifically, it was wrong to drag in someone over a telephone who didn’t pay admission, and therefore didn’t consent to be a part of the show.  I don’t remember if they ever agreed to that, and I was left feeling like there were no real consequences for what the comedian did.  He never had to apologize directly to me.

Similarly, Mike Ward doesn’t seem to realize what he did was wrong, because he’s still doing it.  He’s still mocking the kid in relation to this tribunal decision.  The media is also repeating the joke.  The media should not be repeating the joke.

So this Quebec human rights decision has further robbed Jérémy Gabriel of his dignity, instead of beginning the healing process.  And my God, I feel terrible for the kid, because I know what it’s like.

You feel dehumanized.  You feel like the world has determined that you’re less deserving of decency and kindness because of something you can’t control.  You feel powerless to set personal boundaries, because the world isn’t giving you the tools to do so.  You look ahead toward the rest of your life, and all you see is more mockery, more cruelty, and more hate.

If this sounds maudlin, keep in mind, we’re dealing with a teenaged mindset.

The goal here is to get the mockery of Jérémy Gabriel to stop, and this decision didn’t do that.  It made it worse.  In attempting to “get tough” on hate speech, the Quebec human rights tribunal just became complicit in spreading it around.

I’m a big believer in free speech, and I don’t believe there should have been a human rights complaint against Mike Ward.  I think that there should be some system that made Mike Ward have to face the young man that he mocked for money and attention.  If the kid was bullied, Mike Ward should have had to go into the schools, admit he was wrong, and set a positive example instead of continuing to set a negative one.

We shouldn’t need to be talking about human rights in this case.  What Mike Ward did was just an old-fashioned rejection of basic human decency.

Jérémy Gabriel is disabled, and Mike Ward should be damned grateful that he’s able-bodied and doesn’t have symptoms that can include vision loss, deafness and breathing problems.  It’s not funny to make fun of someone’s disability without their consent — I add the consent caveat because many comedians, including myself, include their personal biographies in their own material.  One of the funniest stand-up comedians I personally know, Andre Arruda, does hysterical material surrounding his experiences as a disabled person.

But making fun of a kid isn’t fair game.  Please, someone show this article to Mike Ward, and try to get him to understand that.

There’s a wrinkle to this, however, and it speaks to an uncomfortable element of our free-speech-driven society.  Jérémy Gabriel isn’t just any kid.  Jérémy Gabriel is a performer and something of a celebrity, having sung for the Pope.  Once you cross over into the public realm that way, you open yourself up to a greater degree of criticism, and that criticism is often scathingly cruel.

I can speak to this as well.  I was a competitive dancer, starting seriously at the age of 14.  You had to get tough fast in that world, because adults constantly mocked our bodies — our weight, our breast development, even criticizing teenagers going through that notorious awkward phase for not being beautiful enough for the judges’ liking.  The dance world is brutal.  The problem with becoming a youth performer is that you’re ending your childhood early.  You’re stepping into the realm of professional performer, and you have to grow up fast or it eats you alive.

And it almost did eat me alive, but that’s a story for another time.

More to the current point, I speak from experience here from both sides.  I produced and co-wrote a show for MuchMusic called Fromage, which was an annual special starring Ed the Sock where we made fun of the most overplayed music videos of the calendar year.  We went out of our way to make it as fair as possible, allowing the audience to both nominate and vote on the videos that were going into the special, because at times it did get mean-spirited.

Some of the people we made fun of were minors.  Notably Britney Spears.  It was assumed that Spears was fair game because she waded into the growing culture war by declaring that, despite her sexualized music video content, that she was a virgin.  Spears was very young at the time, but the assumption in entertainment is that someone that rich and famous is, to an extent, shielded by handlers from haters.  Spears eventually cracked up, so I guess we were wrong about that.

A joke also got through once that was perceived to fat-shame Missy Elliot.  I didn’t write it, but I still regret not catching the problem.  It wasn’t intended to fat shame — it was intended to mock a particular series of images that had Missy gliding across the floor on her stomach, face down.  The joke was “What’s she doing?  Looking for crumbs?”

Like I said, I didn’t catch the unintentional subtext at the time.  In hindsight, I get it, and we were more careful moving forward.  The lines in comedy are often very blurry, and not everyone is going to agree.  So this is where I put on my comedian hat and make the case that a human rights complaint was not the way to punish Mike Ward for, again, legitimately deplorable behaviour.

I give the Jérémy Gabriels of the world credit for standing up to the Mike Wards of the world.  I just think that the best way to get guys like Mike Ward to stop being disgusting is to use your own free speech rights to take them on in a battle of ideas.  If Ward can dish out this kind of mockery, he should be able to take it.  It’s easy to beat Ward at his own game, because making fun of a kid’s disability simply isn’t funny.  There are plenty of jokes that can be made at Mike Ward’s expense, such as…

Should a guy REALLY be making fun of a kid’s looks when he looks like a cross between Steve Buscemi and BeBop?  Not judging!  Just saying!

mike-ward bebop3

Or this:

Mike Ward should know that fellow comedian Bob Saget has a nephew with Treacher Collins Syndrome.  The two should talk, so Ward can learn brand new ways to be totally unfunny.

Or this:

Mike Ward says he was fined for treating a disabled boy like an equal.  Well, sure dude.  No one wants to be compared to a Canadian stand-up comic!

Or something more broadly insulting:

Quebec comedian Mike Ward is best known for things that offend and annoy other Canadians.  Like almost everything else that comes out of Quebec.  Poutine is an apology gift.

For the record, I don’t actually think Mike Ward is ugly, Bob Saget is unfunny, that Canadian comedians are the lowest form of life, or that everyone hates Quebecers.  You stretch things for jokes.  But if Mike Ward tells these sorts of jokes, he should be able to take them.  Believe it or not, a lot of comedians are very thin-skinned and approval seeking, and mockery is an effective way to modify their behaviour.

Instead of making Mike Ward into a free speech hero, the way a $42,000 series of fines does, we should be asking the hard questions about what exactly happened here.  Why did a kid get bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts because of comedy material that should, by rights, be reserved for adult audiences only?  Why didn’t Jérémy Gabriel’s community leaders lead, and why didn’t his teachers teach, to get the bullying to stop?

Well, we know that teachers don’t intervene because they don’t want to get sued.  So the entire system is suffering because of too much litigation.  Our system of laws is designed to promote good behaviour, but it’s getting in the way of that now.  Companies and individuals won’t offer simple apologies to people, or try to make things right, because it creates a higher likelihood they’ll be successfully sued.

We need a system that encourages self-directed accountability.  We need a system focused on restorative justice.  Financial penalties won’t curb Mike Ward’s behaviour here, because one TV special based on his increased notoriety will turn him a profit in this situation.

Ward just doesn’t seem moved by the pain of a young man who had the genetic deck stacked against him, and this is being lost in an understandable defence of Free Speech protections.  The systemic overreach is clear in this case, since it’s accomplished the precise opposite of what it’s intended to do.

Put Mike Ward in a room with the kid and make him sit and say nothing while Jérémy Gabriel walks him through the pain his “humour” caused.  Make it clear that when you know the subject of your jokes is really hurt by your jokes — not offended, but sincerely caused pain — and you keep telling the same damned jokes… that crosses the line between comedy and bullying.

Mike Ward is no longer a comedian here.  Mike Ward has become, in this one instance, a bully.  He’s been told to stop mocking a disabled kid and he won’t stop.  And we should be able to call that out.

That’s the best way to enact real change here.  As is, the Quebec tribunal and the media at large are complicit in continuing to repeat Ward’s cruelty in the guise of humour.

 

 

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